The Nigerian Massacres — A Grim Harvest for the End of the Year
For liturgical Christians, the week after Christmas is filled with somber celebrations. Right after we rejoice at the birth of Jesus Christ we remember the first Christian martyr — St. Stephen. The next day we remember St. John who witnessed the crucifixion of Jesus, then the “Holy Innocents” — the babies slaughtered at the command of King Herod. On the fourth day of Christmas another martyr is commemorated: Thomas Becket — Archbishop of Canterbury — brutally butchered at the King’s behest.
We remember the martyrs for the faith because they are reminders of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus Himself made on the cross. In every age in one place or another Christians have been slain by those who hold worldly power, and our present day is no different.
Nigerian Christians Massacre
Over the Christmas period a massacre of Christians in Nigeria reminded us that martyrdom is always with us. Nearly 200 people were killed in attacks across Nigeria’s Central Plateau State on Christmas Eve. Some 300 others were injured. The attackers targeted 20 Christian villages, starting on December 24 but continuing into Christmas Day.
A local resident, Magit Macham, told Reuters, “We were taken unawares and those that could run, ran into the bush. A good number of those that couldn’t were caught and killed with machetes.”
The Battleground Between Islam and Christianity
The murders were carried out by Muslim extremists, but to say this was simply bloodthirsty jihadists killing Christians misses the more complicated context. Nigeria — the most populous country of Africa — has become a battleground between Islam and Christianity — both of which are in growth mode.
According to the Pew Research Center, in 2011, Nigeria had the largest Christian population of any country in Africa, with more than 80 million followers of Jesus Christ. About 3/4 of them are members of various Protestant denominations and 1/4 are Catholic.
The number of Muslims in Nigeria is also about 80 million — roughly half the population. With a population that is half Muslim and half Christian, conflict is practically unavoidable.
The Christian/Muslim clash in Nigeria is exacerbated by traditional tribal loyalties. The Northern Yoruba tribe are predominantly Muslim while the Igbo in the South are mostly Christian. Members of the Igbo tribe are generally wealthier and more powerful.
Because of a higher birth rate, Islam is growing faster than Christianity in Nigeria, and the political and economic situation lends itself to Islamic extremism. Put simply, the Muslims in the more impoverished North often fall prey to extremism and political activism as a way to reverse their fortunes and revenge their grievances, and this, in turn, fuels the religious violence.
When one group gains political and military control, the use of force can become even more toxic.
Commenting on the most recent atrocities, The UK’s Catholic Herald reported a spokesman from Intersociety (A Catholic-associated NGO) said the recent massacre “was likely a clandestine government-coordinated revenge killing using the government-protected Fulani Jihadists to launch a reprisal attack over the Dec. 3 killing of over 120 defenceless Islamic festival celebrants in Tudun Biri part of Kaduna State.”
‘We are Not Surprised’
In the earlier attack, the Muslims were killed by two airstrikes coordinated by the Nigerian Defence Headquarters of the Nigerian Armed Forces. The military said it was accidental, but Intersociety’s Board Chair Emeka Umeagbalasi didn’t see it that way.
“We are not surprised at what happened in Plateau State yesterday (December 24),” Emeka said. “We have blood suckers all over the place, and as I have said it before, the Nigerian security forces are biased, crudely biased. They are pro-Islamist security forces. If Nigerian security forces were up and running, some of this nonsense would have been stopped. But our security forces are crudely biased and partisan.”
In other words, the massacres that took place over Christmas in Nigeria are motivated not only by religious hatred, but also by ancient tribal feuds, political rivalries, revenge and retribution.
No matter what the complications, the simple fact is that Christians in Nigeria are regularly hacked to death, their properties torched and their churches vandalized.
In the first seven months of this year, about 2,500 Nigerian Christians were killed. Predictions are that between July and January 2024 the toll will rise to 4,000 Christian martyrs. This figure follows recent trends. For both of the last two years roughly 5,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria.
So, as we come to the end of another year we look back on 12 months of bloodshed in west Africa. As a new year unfolds let us hope and pray not only for peace and reconciliation between warring tribes and religious believers, but also for increasing awareness, understanding and compassion from a largely indifferent world.
Follow Dwight Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com